The Indigo Canon: ‘Set It Off’ and the timeless politics of blackness

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Disclaimer: this isn’t going to be easy. That’s probably what F. Gary Gray should have said at the beginning of the crime-action film that ruined my day and every day that came after.

Set It Off (1996) depicts an ecosystem of black women who epitomise the ‘ride or die’ culture of crime-action dramas. We watch them role-playing the Godfather in an empty conference room during their nightshifts as janitorial workers, spending afternoons smoking on rooftops thinking of the freedom they’d have if they were able to make $15/hr. The film is saturated with intimate depictions of the support they offer each other in times of crisis and the joy that continues to exist within the sanctity of their relationships. They are passionate women, loving each other and the family they support as best they can. Only when the powers-that-be disrupt this established symbiosis does the film fully submerge into the classic heist genre.

The plot follows the standardised sequence of heist films. You have the brains of the operation: Frankie (Vivica A. Fox). Her wrongful termination from her job as a bank-teller gives the group the intricate knowledge to manoeuvre around silent alarms and camera surveillance systems. Then we have the muscle: Cleo (Queen Latifah), whose street-smarts paired with heavy artillery makes for an extremely volatile atmosphere lulled only by her seductive charm. In comes her polar-opposite T.T. (Kimberly Elise), the flight risk. A single mother without the financial means to hire a caretaker for her child. Her situation is desperate to say the least, only her frailty marks the potential downfall of a group that needs to remain steadfast if their plan is going to work. Finally, we have our voice of reason: Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith). Can her moral compass hold everyone together when the adrenaline gets to their heads, or the fear stops them in their tracks?

When Frankie says: “The only way we gonna see cash is if we rob a bank”, audiences are thrust into a world of the haves and the have nots

But does any of this make the film a classic? Short answer, yes. One scene in particular jumps out at me every time I make this argument. When Stony becomes the collateral damage of the systemic violence inflicted on black male youth, her depressive episode is captured so potently audiences have no other option but to understand that what they are seeing is real. The moral authority bestowed on this band of misfits subverts any assumptions about the binary scales of right vs. wrong. When Frankie says: “The only way we gonna see cash is if we rob a bank”, audiences are thrust into a world of the haves and the have nots. It might not be the only way to us, but it is definitely the only way within the boundaries of their reality. A reality encompassed by a lone truth: what is the worst that could happen if we broke the rules of a game designed for us to lose?

With a soundtrack that peaked at #4 on the Billboard 200 and directorial nuances hailing the aesthetics of African-American culture, Gary aggrandises the lives of black women in 1990s Los Angeles. These streets are over-policed and underfunded and the movie resonates deeply as an ode to the power that comes from attempt to reclaim one’s power. Black trauma is never easy to digest, but through Gary’s eyes it is particularly gruesome. Frankie’s job-loss illustrates the lack of defensibility when blackness becomes stigmatised in corporate America. T.T.’s inability to afford childcare shows the contradictions of a system that enforces the pursuit of an ‘honest’ living, yet still fails to accommodate the needs of its constituents. And Stony? Her dilemma elucidates the aftermath of quasi-executions carried out by the police force.

This film is refreshingly raw as it allows audiences to imagine what it might be like to be a woman surviving in these communities.

Classic films are timeless and herein lies Set It Off’s true tragedy. In the wake of anti-police movements and the glossing over of black female victimhood, these four women can be transposed into the political atmosphere of 2023 when the message behind their desperation should have remained in 1996. Kate Lanier and Takashi Bufford’s screenplay makes it abundantly clear that before we enter the storm of speedy getaways and makeshift disguises, they are four women trying to survive in the hood. The 90s were an epoch filled with depictions of black neighbourhoods in Los Angeles, but in Boyz n the Hood (1991) or Menace II Society (1993), female characters exist in terms of their ability to push forward the narratives of their male counterparts. This film is refreshingly raw as it allows audiences to imagine what it might be like to be a woman surviving in these communities.

Set It Off is excruciatingly self-aware. It is this self-awareness that focalises the thrill of escape and freedom beyond banal, individualistic desire. This film is my classic and if you give it the time of day, I’m sure it will be yours too.

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